By Jessica Brodie
Annual conferences in the United States are not legally permitted under current church law to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church.
That’s the final word from the Judicial Council, the UMC’s top court, in its ruling released May 10 (Decision 1444). The UMC Council of Bishops had asked the court to review this and other related questions as two annual conference in the United States—South Georgia and Northwest Texas—were set to consider disaffiliation resolutions at their next session.
Citing Para. 16 in the UMC Constitution, the court ruled, “Separation has serious ramifications not only for the departing annual conference but also entities and persons outside its boundaries because it is a dramatic departure from connectionalism—the ‘vital web of interactive relationships’ among the people of The United Methodist Church. At stake here is the unity of the Church. The question of annual conference withdrawal from The United Methodist Church is a connectional matter and requires a churchwide legislative solution primarily because General Conference has ‘full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional.’”
Only General Conference can set the process and conditions for these regional church bodies to leave the United Methodist connection, and General Conference has not done this. Because of health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, that gathering has been postponed until 2024.
Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, resident bishop of the South Carolina Conference of the UMC, urged United Methodists to be patient and remain focused on ministry and on our shared mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, which is the more important matter.
“This decision reminds us that ‘connectionalism’ is more than simply a shared word in our vocabulary,” Holston said. “What we know is that the General Conference is the only body that speaks for the denomination, and the General Conference will not convene again until 2024. These are unsettled times that we are navigating, and our hope is that resolution will be achieved when General Conference next meets.”
For now, Holston called on South Carolina United Methodists to pray for the church and to be patient. He reminded people that Para. 2553 in The Book of Discipline exists as a path to disaffiliation for local churches who wish to consider this.
“If you have questions, we encourage you to be in further conversation with your district superintendent, who has the most recent information available,” Holston said. “Moving forward, we will communicate about ways that every congregation in our Annual Conference can make the decisions that assist in living into our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
To read the ruling in full, visit https://www.resourceumc.org/en/churchwide/judicial-council/judicial-council-decision-home/judicial-decisions/decision-1444
To read the United Methodist New Service article on this, “Church Court: Conferences Can’t Exit Unilaterally,” by Heather Hahn, visit https://www.umnews.org/en/news/church-court-conferences-cant-exit-unilaterally